Opinion | Opinion

Don’t dismiss Arab League’s desire to talk

The Arab League made some headlines this week, when its representative, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatar’s prime minister, conveyed in Washington something that looks like a softening of the traditional Arab hard line towards the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead of returning to the pre-1967 borders, he said, the Arab League is now ready to consider some land swap.

If this is true, then it means that the Arabs might have reluctantly come to terms with the reality developed since the Six-Day War, namely, that some Israeli settlements have become accomplished facts, and that there is no way on earth to uproot them. This sounds like a positive move by the Arab League, an organization which usually doesn’t enjoy the trust of Israelis.

The first time I heard about the Arab League was in 1964, when I was about to graduate high school. I heard over the radio that this organization, representing the Arab states surrounding Israel, in its convention in East Jerusalem (then in the hands of the Jordanians), announced the creation of another organization: the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

I asked my father, who was listening as well, what it meant. He said he didn’t know, but anything initiated by the Arab League must be dangerous to Israel. He then told me about 1948, when, just before the establishment of the state of Israel, the secretary of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, threatened us with genocide, “a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.”

Many years later, Israeli historian Tom Segev claimed that Pasha didn’t really mean it, and that he was just bragging. But in 1964 I didn’t know that yet. On the contrary, I learned that the Arab League was behind the Arab boycott of Israeli products. Therefore, my perception of the Arab League as the ultimate bad guys remained intact.

Then came the Six-Day War. Again the Arabs were threatening us with destruction, and the Voice of Cairo radio announced that Tel Aviv is burning. I was serving in the Israeli Air Force at the time, and I knew perfectly well that as this nonsense was aired the Egyptian air force had already been destroyed, and that the Egyptians, followed by the Jordanians and the Syrians, were on their way to a smashing defeat.

Like many Israelis, I believed at the time that this was the war to end all wars, and that the Arabs will sit down with us, make peace and get their territories back. Nothing of the sort happened. On the contrary, it was no other than the same Arab League, which, in its summit in Khartoum in September 1967, gave us not one No, but three: No peace with Israel; No recognition of Israel; No negotiations with it.

The Arab League, then, remained the epitome of Arab rejection of Israel. When in 1979 President Anwar Sadat courageously signed a peace accord with Israel, the Arab League punished Egypt by suspending it for a whole decade. Then it sank into impotence over its dubious role during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait,and as far as Israel was concerned, I thought we wouldn’t bother about them anymore.

In 2002, however, the Arab League reemerged with a surprising move. In its summit conference in Beirut in March 2002, it announced that in return for Israel’s withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, its member states would make peace with Israel and put an end to the conflict. What a far cry from the Khartoum summit!

Israel wasn’t responsive to this initiative, mainly because the resolution had called for the withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders and the establishment of East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.

Moreover, the refugee issue remained ambiguous. The resolution spoke about “the return of the Palestinian refugees,” but didn’t specify where they should return to: to the Palestinian state? To Israel?

No Israeli would have agreed to the latter solution, which is perceived by Israelis as the destruction of Israel.

Years passed , the Second Lebanon War erupted, and when it seemed that Arab-Israeli relations have never been worse, the Arab League surprised again. At its summit meeting in Riyyad in March, 2007, it decided to send the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan to Israel in an attempt to raise support for its 2002 initiative. Again, the Israeli reaction was hesitant. According to a report in the Haaretz newspaper from Aug. 9, 2012, Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister in 2007, considered an option to personally address the summit participants, but backed out at the last moment.

So today, the Arab League is knocking on the door of Israel again, this time through Washington. I think we should open the door. This is not the same Arab League my father loathed and feared in 1948, and Israel is not the same embryonic, fragile, state it was then.

If Arabs have become resigned to the fact that Israel is here to stay and want to talk peace with Israel, let’s sit down and talk. No preconditions, no hidden agenda, just face to face, hard, candid talk. If they bluff, that’s the way to find out. We fought each other for so long, and maybe we’ll fight again. In the meantime, why not give talk a chance?

Uri Dromi is executive director of the Jerusalem Press Club. This commentary first appeared in the Miami Herald.